A Personal Story About Body Positivity: How I Overcame My Leg.
I wrote this blog to inspire you. The purpose of me telling my story is to heal myself, but more than that, it’s so you’ll see that overcoming a challenging emotional barrier is possible, and that if I did it, maybe you can, too.
Normally, you as readers see me as Abby Langer, the dietitian. Today, you’ll see me as Abby Langer, the person. I’m revealing a little-known, very personal fact about me and how I’ve struggled with it, until now.
We’re in the age of body positivity, and we all deserve to celebrate who we are. Read my story, and think of how you, too, can see yourself in a more positive light.
This is the story of how I overcame my leg. I know that sounds weird, but stay with me here.
My mom saw it first, when I was just a baby. It was a little purple dot, and as I grew, it did too – into a big, ugly mass of veins and scab-like lesions from the knee to the foot of my left leg.
Cavernous hemangioma. It’s a mouthful, and only in adulthood would I finally know the name for what made my leg deformed and veiny for my entire life up until that point.
What I had was so rare, no doctors knew what to do with it. I saw countless specialists in Toronto and even in the US, flying down to Boston with my mom for one day when I was a little girl so a guy there could poke and prod my veiny leg and tell us that he knew what it was, but that there was no cure. I had MRIs, enough x-rays to make me practically glow with radiation, and water displacement measurements, but there wasn’t anything anyone could do.
My leg didn’t bother me all that much physically. I mean, it ached a lot if I stood for a while, and when I started to shave, I had to avoid the scab-like lesions or they’d bleed for an hour if I mistakenly cut them. Otherwise though, I could walk, run, ride a bike, and do whatever kids did, without an issue. It was the emotional stuff that was the real problem.
Probably none of you reading this have a leg like mine. But I’ll bet you have something about your body that causes you anxiety: You’re carrying too little or too much weight, you have freaky toes, you have a weird birthmark. You have stretchmarks, a poochy tummy, or crooked teeth. We all have stuff that we don’t like about our bodies, and that stuff prevents us from being completely confident in ourselves.
It’s hard for me to describe how my leg looked before I had surgery on it. All I can say is that the entire calf and foot of my left leg were noticeably bigger than my right ones, swollen with very purple veins. It was like varicose veins on steroids, and definitely attention-grabbing.
‘What happened to your leg?’ people would ask me when I was young, looking at my leg as though it had some horrible secret to tell. Peoples’ questions and stares were mortifying and strangely intrusive for a young person, and from an early age, I knew that I was different from the other kids. Not in a good way, either; in an ugly, weird way that I needed to hide. Why else would people stare at my leg and whisper among themselves what were surely arbitrary guesses about why it looked like it did? Someone (I conveniently forget who) called it my ‘bad’ leg, totally not realizing the effect that description would have on my self-esteem for years to come. My parents were super-supportive of course, taking me for Covermark makeup to hide the veins (never worked..my leg just looked like a veiny, makeup-covered leg), support hose to help compress the veins (like an old person), all the while working feverishly to try and figure out what was going on with my leg.
At around age 12 – probably around the time when I started becoming aware of and interested in boys – I stopped wearing shorts, opting for sweatpants to hide my leg, even on the hottest days. At camp during the summer, I’d pray for cold weather and rain so wearing long pants wouldn’t look weird. I avoided anything that revealed my leg. Forced to wear a bathing suit, I’d cross one leg over the other or hide my ‘bad’ leg. It was a full-time job. I was always vigilant, and in the summer, I was always HOT.
My close friends knew about my leg, and of course they didn’t care at all about it. That didn’t stop me from hiding it all the time, even from them. Why subject them to such an ugly sight, I would think to myself – even up until very recently.
When I was 15, I decided enough was enough, and my surgeon father arranged for me to get an ill-advised operation on my leg to remove the veins. Turns out though, they were everywhere. I almost died during the operation, having lost so much blood. The docs took some veins out, closed me up, and in return I got a massive scar to go with the remaining veins. I couldn’t walk for a month, and I had all sorts of post-op complications. It was the ‘80s; no one knew that my condition couldn’t be surgically fixed, and when the smoke cleared, I had gone from just veins to a huge scar from my upper thigh all the way to my toes, plus veins. Great. The entire experience left lasting emotional scars on me, and I believe is in part responsible for the crazy fear of illness that I have now. It was brutal.
But there I was. Having no realistic options to get rid of it, I had to come to terms with my leg, scar and all. And I remind you that physically, my leg is and has always been okay. I’ve run hundreds of miles and countless races (although I have a bit of a limp from my scar), and I’ve never had any physical limits. Just like many of you, my ‘imperfection’ has been a mostly emotional barrier that I’ve struggled to overcome.
As it turns out, despite all my fears to the contrary, I had very few negative experiences that had to do with my leg. One I will always remember was when I went to see a doctor in California about something. He saw my leg, and right as I sat there, said to his nurse, ‘she’s such a pretty girl, too bad about her leg’. I cried all the way home. But that’s pretty much the only time anyone was such a dick about it.
The questions about what happened to my leg continued, but being older, I made up some fun answers to them that surprisingly, people actually believed:
“I was kidnapped by a motorcycle gang and I burned my leg on the motorcycle tailpipe when I was escaping” or, “I got bitten by a shark” were two that I loved.
I always wanted to wear skirts and dresses because I loved the look of them, but I could never pull the trigger. Most of the dresses I wore were long, with a few exceptions that I felt uncomfortable in. For someone who loves fashion as much as I do, it really sucked.
Dating with my leg was interesting. I never wore a short skirt out to a bar, because what if a guy saw my leg? Events like pool parties struck utter fear in my heart, and I’d always decline or wear linen pants on top of my bathing suit. I met guys on the beach, but I’d be very strategic about hiding my leg behind whatever was available – a towel, beach chair, whatever – and I’d spend an inordinate amount of time planning where I was going to walk and at what angle (lol) so my leg would be hidden. If that sounds like a lot of work, it WAS! But hey, I was going to rock a bikini because I couldn’t wear a snowsuit in Florida…so I needed to manage the situation.
If I deemed a guy to be worthy, I’d tell him with great trepidation about my leg, as though it was something horrible. I felt like damaged goods, and that once they saw what I was hiding, they’d take off because I wasn’t what they’d thought they were getting when they’d chosen me. No one ever did that though. They loved me not despite my scar, but because of who I was as a whole. Unfortunately, I couldn’t say the same thing about myself.
Getting *ahem* exposed in front of a guy, I was always petrified that he’d take one look at my leg and walk out the door. Who was I kidding? All guys care about is that there’s a naked woman in front of them; their tunnel vision doesn’t see scars, or any other shit you’re paranoid about. Still, I’d lie in bed as they slept and plan out my route to the bathroom so that they couldn’t see my scar – just in case they saw it and changed their mind. God. As if!
This all sounds crazy, but I never claimed that my anxiety was rational. Yours probably isn’t, either. Rational and emotional are two things that don’t intersect all that frequently, which is why we spend so much time worrying about this crap when really, we should be doing something more productive.
My leg and I made it into our 40s with a lot of hiding and embarrassment, until recently.
One day when I was telling my 9 year old daughter about how much I wished I could just wear short skirts, she turned to me and said: ‘Mommy, you’re beautiful. You should wear what you want! No one will care! It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks. If anyone stares or tells you that your leg is ugly, tell them that you’re happy with your body, and if they don’t like it, they don’t have to look. You shouldn’t hide your leg and be hot all summer!”
It was right then that I woke up. She was right. I shouldn’t care about what other people think.
I was really fucking tired of hiding, and really fucking tired of being hot in the summer. I didn’t want to run in tights in July anymore, and if a 9 year old could school me on being proud of my body, then I sure as hell was going to take that lesson and run with it.
I started thinking more about what she said, and I kept coming to the same conclusion:
My body is beautiful and perfect the way it is. It gave me two amazing children, it supports me on long runs, and it has never let me down. Why should I give a shit about what people think of my leg, and who am I to be embarrassed of something that’s not only beyond my control, but that’s actually not such a big deal? People come in all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of ‘stuff’. I never judge them, so why was I judging myself so harshly? I don’t care about other peoples’ ‘imperfections’, so why would I think that they give a crap about mine?
I was through with wasting my precious time worrying about this unproductive, idiotic crap. After all these years, I was ready to put my foot (or my leg, haha) down.
I decided to cut through all the years of anxiety and embarrassment and hiding, and just come out with my leg already. Because I’m Abby Langer, and this is me! Why would I let one aspect of me overshadow all the other things that make me who I am?
Besides, I think my scar makes me look tough. YEAH!
Fuck man, I’m 44 – I’m already half done with my life, and I sure as hell am not about to live the other half hiding my leg behind a towel!
This was all about how I felt about myself, not about how people felt about me.
I’m getting over that. I understand that my differences make me who I am and I’m more accepting of myself as a whole.
It feels good, and it feels liberating. Screw everyone else, because I feel strong and beautiful and fabulous!
Once I decided to stop worrying about my leg, the whole thing snowballed. I started running in running skirts instead of tights and realized that I run faster when I’m not skyrocketing my internal temperature with winter running clothes in the summer. I went to Nordstrom and bought a dress – shoutout to my lovely cousin and personal stylist Tamara Glick, who listened to me talk about my leg for an hour in the dressing room and then sold me a SHORT!! dress that’s gorgeous and that I can’t wait to wear. It’s the kind of dress I had drooled over all my life but never felt like I could pull off with my leg.
It’s gotten easier and easier. I’m now in the market for a pair of shorts, which I always told myself were tacky but was just using that as an excuse because I was embarrassed to wear them. Sigh, the games we play with ourselves.
I’m not going to tell you that I’m completely immune to the stares my leg sometimes gets, or that feeling of anxiety I get when I think of wearing something that exposes my leg. But I can push through those situations now and get on with my life. We aren’t responsible for what other people think about us, only how we react. Do NOT waste another second of your life believing that you’re less gorgeous or worthy because of something that makes you different. Be strong, be healthy, be radiant. If people are cruel, it’s their stuff showing, not yours.
Surrender those long sleeved shirts, pants, long dresses, tights, and yes, towels – and walk forward into the sunshine, being completely you.
You belong, and you deserve to be happy and free.
And just because I know you’re totally wondering now what my leg looks like, here’s my leg and I, going for a run…